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Should we solve one-click subscription by turning the HTML off?

In response to what Tim Bray said about one-click subscriptions,Dare Obasanjo had this to say about one-click subscriptions:

"As long as people expect one click subscription to depend on websites using the right icons, the right HTML and the right MIME types for their documents it won't become widespread. On the other hand, this debate is about to become moot anyway because every major web browser is going to have a [Subscribe to this website] button on it in a year or so."

I agree with the first bit. The last bit would sound like goll for next year, except I don't use browsers much anymore and will be using them even less next year. Aggregators are so much better than browsers for following content. Really, if you have to read stuff on the web and are using a browser for that, you should try an aggregator. And then, what's the browser good for?

Clicksub as Programmer Usability

There are some suggestions that 'clicksub' (that's not a new jargon play , it's just easier to type than 'one-click subscription') should work like 'mailto:' or 'aim:goaim' links and fire up your default aggregator. Even if you could fix Dare's problem no 1 (infrastructure, do-rightness), that idea doesn't work because doing mail stuff is different than doing web stuff. Whereas rading stuff in a browser isn't suffiicently different to reading stuff in an aggregator. Having clicksub links in browsers to fire up your aggregator for feeds is like having clicksub links in Notepad to fire up Excel for CSV files. Even as a migration strategy it boggles the mind. Until there's one aggregator to rule them all (or at least 87.6% of them), it doesn't make sense for the world to punt on one-click in aggregators because the browsers will save us. They should just get to it directly with an aggregator. [And before anyone tells me that aggregators are unusable they'll have to explain in what way browsers are usable by comparison.]

To be honest, next year's browsers need to be aggregators, else I don't see the point in using them. Why would I get a new browser just so I can subscribe to web feeds?

While the browser wars continue on their merry percentage-driven dance, it all seems somehow kind of pointless and wistful, like having a really satisfying argument over the pros and cons of various 8-track tape players, while the rest of world are sucking down MP3s into their iPods.

Like I said, I just don't read much from a browser anymore. The browser is sort of incidental and using it as a really big startup file for my aggregator feel likes the long way around.

Conclusion: getting a new browser just so I can subscribe to stuff for my aggregator has Programmer Usability written all over it.

HTML as web fluff

Maybe it's time to evolve. I say let's restate the problem.

The idea of turning off the website for this place and just serving up the feed does not look unreasonable at this point. I'm betting 90% of traffic to the archived html files here is only driven because the permalinks and trackbacks point there instead of direct to feed entries. It's slavish. Honestly, permalinking to a html file is starting to look more and more like a bug. Why not point to the XML entries? (Answer: I'm not sure, but in my case it might have something to do with having a Perl Deficit).

So my answer to clicksub - don't start from there. Instead this would be great: at some point weblogs flip over and the HTML website bits will become secondary fluff to the XML content, like how PDFs are secondary web fluff to HTML today. The frontpage would be the feed, the archives would be Atom entries, and instead of a "subscribe to the feed" buttons, you could have "read this stuff in a browser" buttons. And reading this stuff in browser would be retro-cool in a Harris tweed sports jacket kind of way - you could use Lynx at tech conferences to read weblogs and get some respect for keeping it real. It would be strictly for the weekends. Otherwise, no more handwringing about one-click subscriptions - if you got here, you're already subscribed.

Conclusion: problem solved.

Browsers as muscle memory

You can (and probably should) dismiss all this as an irrelevant outlier opinion from one tech user. Or you can take the idea of not using a browser and not having a html based web site as a precursor to how people will interact with content. This is no bad thing. I happen to feel that browsers do not exactly rock as user-interfaces. Browsing is a hokey metaphor, that we only made up because "surfing" was so shockingly awful, anything else would do. Nobody "browses the blogosphere", which I see as progress, although "blogosphere" clearly requires some work.

Web browsers are still good for the following however:

  1. Testing webapps
  2. Shopping
  3. Posting to delicious
  4. Search forms

1 is a self-fulfilling prophesy (or a death-spiral, I can't tell). 2, well, Better Living Through Shopping obviously, but it's only conditioning to be unlearned - how long can it be before I start buying stuff via an aggregator? 3 and 4 represents feature deficit in today's aggregators, insofar as they they don't have much by the way of tool bar goodness. A Mozilla based aggregator will eventually fix that right up.

Conclusion: at this stage using a browser is muscle memory.

[update 2005-08-30: some good pushback from Brian Rowe.]

August 18, 2005 11:04 PM


(August 19, 2005 02:36 AM #)

Just a small comment that my aggregator is BlogLines, a web-based one, and I love it because its available wherever I go. It being web-based certainly changes things around, and I guess my advice to you as an aggregator user is to try it; Tim could still be right. :) In fact, a lot of sites offer 'subscribe to this website' with links for FeedBurner, BlogLines, etc. I'm sure these will be configurable (common API, probably) some time soon.

Dare Obasanjo
(August 19, 2005 03:09 AM #)

You can do 3 and 4 pretty easily from RSS Bandit. One of the items on my TODO list is to nag the MSN Shopping guys to make it so I can do 2 from RSS Bandit as well. I can't help you with 1 though. :)

Aristotle Pagaltzis
(August 19, 2005 03:50 AM #)

Where do things like wikis fit into this?

Bill de hOra
(August 19, 2005 08:58 AM #)

"You can do 3 and 4 pretty easily from RSS Bandit."

Cool - hey, fix that memory bug!

(August 19, 2005 11:12 AM #)

Bloglines has some of these points as well, but:

My aggregator works anywhere in any browser, has an implicit "mark as read" button (just ignore the link), and works for pages that don't publish RSS. Downsides are the admin interface (editing text files over ssh, but I'm always sshed in), it doesn't support autodiscovery (how often do you add a feed anyway?) and doesn't understand feeds - but I'm yet to see any useful data in them.

(August 19, 2005 11:14 AM #)

Oh, and I forgot to say that that (Python, but not very nice - it reached the works for me point several years ago and has barely been touched since) GPL source is available on request.

Peter Herndon
(August 19, 2005 05:11 PM #)

Well, Bill, I guess this comment falls more on the side of a user interface rant than anything else. I agree with your general premise: why read syndicated content in anything other than a dedicated syndicated content app, an aggregator? At least, the premise sounds good.

But we're not there yet. The problem is one of HCI more than anything else. In my personal case, I'm near-sighted. I can certainly read your weblog in my aggregator, and I do just that, for short posts. Posts where the content fits easily in one screen in the aggregator, where the program uses a three-pane view.

For long posts, such as this one, there are a few other factors at work. I want to be able to linger over the post, to concentrate on it alone and digest the meaning. An aggregator pane makes that harder than it should be. I am somewhat aware of the bold numbers in my list of feeds, and I feel I should be skimming through my unread posts, finishing the task at hand. If I stop to concentrate on a given long post, I'm breaking my mental context and refocussing it. On the other hand, if I open your post in my browser in the background, I can continue to pan for gold, setting aside useful nuggets for more in-depth concentration. Also, the aggregator user interface does not lend itself to reading long posts. With a 3-pane view (NetNewsWireLite), I have at best a bit less than half my available pixels to dedicate to the article pane. If I want more than that, I have to reconfigure my layout by hand to give the post enough space, and then reconfigure back to my optimal layout for skimming.

And that's really the point of a browser, presentation. In a browser window, I dedicate a the window entirely to the content of the post (minus the bookmark bar and tab bar). On top of that, the browser shows your website. That website reflects your personality to some extent, in the choices you make regarding layout, fonts, colors, images and ancillary information like links to your, or others', projects or websites. My newsreader certainly shows me links or images in the content of the post, but strips away the context established by the website. Is that a good thing? I don't think so.

Insofar as the choice to use *only* a feed without a supporting website reflects the author's personality, I think that's an interesting bit of context on its own, but a website can add an awful lot of value. And perhaps I've just come across a bunch of flaws in the design of aggregators, and those flaws may eventually be fixed, but I also think there's quite a bit of value in my workflow, skim then concentrate. I will still want to maintain that workflow, even if aggregators evolve to solve the problem of multiple layouts for skimming short posts versus in-depth reading of longer posts. I will still want to skim completely, then focus on the longer stuff, rather than mixing the two.

So, while I agree that aggregators will eventually evolve to solve my issues, I still just want to point out that context is very important, and my optimal workflow involves a dedicated long post reader as well as a short post skimmer. Browsers still have their uses. I think that eventually, rather than browsers gaining aggregator abilities, aggregators will include full-blown browsing, of websites as well as feeds.

Adam Vandenberg
(August 20, 2005 04:32 PM #)

"And then, what's the browser good for?"

Harry Alton
(August 20, 2005 07:49 PM #)

"And then, what's the browser good for?"

Mark Masterson
(September 2, 2005 09:58 AM #)

I just wanted to weigh in here and say "Me too!" to James' comment about varying use cases and the need for a "long post reader". I behave very much like James -- I get my feeds via Bloglines, using Firefox, and my first pass is always a "skim". In that mode, I open the posts that seem interesting in separate tabs. Druing the course of the day, I take occasional breaks from coding, and read my way through the various tabs. The pure aggreagator approach doesn't support this kind of "asynchronous" reading. Or?

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